Sherlock Holmes would describe a particularly thorny conundrum as a three-pipe problem. Like so many before and after, he used the pause needed to light and smoke a pipe as a way of getting his thoughts in order. Could it be argued that we think less clearly and creatively because by-and-large we no longer smoke the pipe? We no longer have the pause that’s needed to think of something practical or even to just mechanically do something – like rooting around and getting the pipe aglow. The deep inhalation of breath, the woody smell of the tobacco, the comforting feel of the pipe. When engaged in pipe smoking we are freed from the stress of doing anything else – like thinking for instance.
I don’t smoke, but I do write and before I was a vicar, I spent what seems like a lifetime as CEO of a brand agency. I was in the ideas business and in many ways I still am. I have found a natty way to let the ideas back in, but to start we need to go back to smoking and to the charming anachronism of the smoking hat and other smoking attire.
Could it be argued that we think less clearly and creatively because by-and-large we no longer smoke the pipe?
Smoking hats, which were sometimes known as lounging caps, became really popular in the 1850s and continued to be so throughout the nineteenth century. Officers began wearing them during the Crimean War because they wanted to keep the smell of the cigars they were smoking off their hair. When they brought the Turkish cigars back home the hats and other smoking gear were a social necessity. It wasn’t done for a man to smoke in front of a woman or to smell of smoke when they were in their company. Hence the need to retire to their own den, put on the jacket, smoking slippers and hat and smoke to their heart’s content (they didn’t know about lung cancer then).
But smoking hats weren’t just popular with gentleman. Back at home, Victorian wives and sweethearts took to embroidering the hats and they became ever more elaborate and beautiful. Nineteenth-century fashion magazines devoted pages to designs for the cap.
The smoking hat itself was often made at home, as a love token. They were simple, often made from wool, silk or velvet and topped with a tassel – which was sometimes multicoloured. The designs were heavily influenced by the Near and Middle East – both areas that fascinated the Victorians more generally.
It seems odd that as smoking took root (as it were) in the twentieth century, the cap declined in use. Perhaps it was because the cap and the other smoking wear – like the smoking jacket – went together as a package. When one went, both went. Even though Fred Astaire was buried in his smoking jacket, smoking-wear coffin clothes never caught on.
The early smoking caps certainly came in handy in homes without central heating. No gentleman wants a freezing cold head. As the heating improved the use of the cap became more associated with out-door use. Bohemians took them up. Men wore them in their gentlemen’s clubs.
But alas, the smoking hat has shrunk in popularity. Part of the problem is that it stopped being functional and became associated with dandies and odd-balls and egotists. Photographer Norman Parkinson was well-known for wearing one, sometimes with a checked suit. He may not have done much for smoking caps, but he did invent a very fine sausage. Hugh Heffner wore one, along with a smoking jacket, but who wants anything to do with him?
In its heyday, the cap was a sign of manners, which brings me back to now and how we can repurpose them – away from the dandies and back to functional wear.
Every morning as I prepare to start writing I put on my smoking hat. It is a plain green velvet one, with gold tassel, hand-made
What we need is to give the dear old smoking cap a use again – which is where the thinking cap comes in. Can we recast the smoking cap as an aid to thinking? Where writers used to have a draw on a pipe filled with tobacco to collect their thoughts, we might now use the smoking cap as a thing to take us into that place where we can let ideas the ideas. The thinking cap is a symbol of refinement, elan and simple elegance and we all need those.
Is there a historical precedence for the thinking cap? It is hard to say that it is any more than just an idiom – putting on one’s thinking cap. But we can work with that.
Every morning as I prepare to start writing I put on my smoking hat. It is a plain green velvet one, with gold tassel, hand-made. It has a padded interior in gold cloth. When the cap is on, I am in writing mode. It is amazing how well it works and creates a creative space and place where I am a writer.
Writers and thinkers have always had tactics to tame the terror of the blank page or screen. That nagging voice that wonders if you’ve lost the knack or the words have dried up. The cap fitted snugly on the head, with tassel tiggling the ear is both a distraction and a thought-focus mechanism. Putting it on, signifies that I am going into a different mental place and that helps.
Could we repurpose other smoking attire? Ornate smoking slippers must have a modern use.
Is it time for the thinking cap to come to the fore? I do think so.
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